Two new books are right to warn we should be alert and alarmed by the military threat China poses to Australia, advises Paul Monk.
The literature on our strategic dilemmas regarding China is accumulating. To our credit, as an open society, it runs the gamut from James Curran or Stan Grant arguing that Australia’s anxieties about China are rooted in racism and xenophobia to Peter Hartcher making a compelling case that Australia has reacted in a perfectly understandable way to Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions. The two books under review here are on the Hartcher side of things. The ANU’s Hugh White, sometime Deputy Secretary of Defence for Strategy and then founding Director of ASPI, has positioned himself at the centre of these debates. His Quarterly Essay (June 2022 ), ‘Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance With America’, drew highly critical responses from Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, Michael Green, and Rory Medcalf.
The Molan and Joske books arise in this context. In Quarterly Essay (September 2022), Rudd delivers a devastating rebuff to White, lambasting White’s grasp of the fundamental economic, military and geopolitical realities in East Asia, then comments:
From these unreliable foundations, White advances a six-point strategy, to ‘get out of this mess’. Running to 11 pages, this is where dubious analysis degenerates into policy farce … The first is to ‘get real about the situation we face … stop underestimating China’s power and resolve, and overestimating America’s, because a correct assessment of their relative positions is essential’. White doesn’t explain how his ‘correct assessment’ of China’s rising regional power accounts for [South] Korea, Japan, and India all turning decisively against China. While ASEAN remains the geopolitical swing-state, Beijing’s only semi-reliable strategic partners in all of Asia are North Korea, Pakistan, and Cambodia.
Michael Green, head of the United States Studies Centre in Sydney, comments that White provides “the wrong diagnosis of the problem and then essentially concludes that the best treatment for Australia is pre-emptive euthanasia”. Molan and Joske are about ‘getting real’ as regards the power equation. Molan shares much of White’s assessment, but not his prescriptions. Joske focuses on Chinese propaganda and influence operations, not military matters per se. Each is deeply alarmed about China’s newfound power and ambitions. Molan, a retired Major-General and experienced commander in actual war, is concerned about Australia’s national security doctrine and force structure. Joske—a young scholar who spent years living in China and is fluent in Chinese—is concerned with the clandestine world of Chinese propaganda and influence operations.
I first met Jim Molan in 1992, when he was at the Defence Intelligence Organisation preparing to be our Army Attaché, Jakarta. At the time I was head of the Japan and Koreas Desk. I visited Jakarta as his guest once he was there and he generously arranged for me to see not only Jakarta, but Bandung and Jogjakarta and to talk in earnest with Alan Dupont, then our accredited intelligence liaison officer in the Embassy. He and I have remained on friendly terms. His career went from strength to strength. He returned to Jakarta as Defence Attaché and played a key behind-the-scenes role in 1998-99 to ensure the East Timor upheaval did not degenerate into a shooting war between Australian peace-keeping forces and pro-Indonesian occupation forces. He then served with distinction at a very high level of command in the Iraq War. He is a soldier’s soldier and a patriot in the finest sense. What he has to say, therefore, in Danger on Our Doorstep, should be taken seriously and read closely.
He broadly accepts White’s premise that China’s rise is radically and perhaps irreversibly altering the strategic environment in which Australia has operated since 1788—that of unchallengeable Anglo-American naval and geopolitical primacy. He believes a major war with China is more likely than most imagine and has dire implications for Australia. This leads him, however, to national security policy prescriptions starkly different from White’s. Far from recommending that we urge the US to pull out of East Asia (as White does), he insists we must prepare for war as a matter of the highest priority and seek a top place at the table in American strategic planning.
This positions Molan in the same camp as White as regards the gravity of the situation and yet further to the strategic ‘right’, as it were, than Kevin Rudd, whose book-length argument, in The Avoidable War (Hachette, 2022), prescribes ‘Managed Strategic Competition’ with the US staying firmly in East Asia and keeping the strategic pressure on China, but taking steps to ensure war does not break out by accident or due to misunderstandings or miscalculations. Molan argues China is preparing for war and could well launch one, not due to misunderstanding but with lethal and decisive intent. Those disinclined to believe this will happen, Molan points out, would do well to contemplate the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the danger of that war escalating due to the paranoia and desperation in Putin’s Moscow. They might also do well to read an obscure book by two senior colonels from the strategic planning division of the People’s Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui: Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing, 1999). In terms of military technology, Chinese economic development, and the cohesion of the US, as well as its global standing, the book is out of date. But it set out a vision for asymmetric warfare and war without rules to which we should all be paying the closest attention in the 2020s.
Molan attempts to jolt us out of what he sees not as a ‘sleepwalk to war’, in Hugh White’s sense, but as a dangerous complacency to how utterly unprepared we are for what may be coming. He writes:
There is danger on our doorstep and our salvation as a nation lies in aligning high-level strategy with the details of how to fight campaigns … all the way down to low-level tactics. And the place to start is with what is called a national security strategy, a process of strategic thinking that is used by many of our allies. The first step in such a strategy is to identify the problem, and in national security strategy thinking, the problem is the kind of war that a nation is preparing to fight. Get that wrong and just about everything else is wrong.
Molan then sets out what is, by his own account, a ‘worst case scenario’: that China chooses to launch a pre-emptive war for supremacy in the Western Pacific, not by invading Taiwan, but by attacking US bases right along the first and second island chains without warning, with missiles, aircraft, anti-satellite weapons, cyber-war, and amphibious assault; with that attack transforming the whole strategic situation, leaving an unprepared Australia reeling and helpless.
A major war with China is more likely than most imagine.
Molan lays out the scenario for this imagined war in enough detail to make it sound compelling. It is reminiscent of a book published in 1927, called The Great Pacific War, by naval analyst Hector Bywater, which spelled out a scenario for a Pacific War between Japan and the US eerily similar to what actually played out between 1941 and 1945. But that was in an era before satellites or nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, drones, cyber-monitoring, or the forward basing of substantial US forces in East Asia. For China now to do, on this scale, what Japan did in 1941 would entail the most incalculable risks. Yet Japan did do what it did, and Putin did invade Ukraine. Danger on Our Doorstep, therefore, warrants a close reading if only as a cautionary tale.
Molan makes a number of historical errors which detract from the book’s credibility regarding China’s past and Japan’s decision to go to war in 1941. He buys into memes largely of Communist Party making about the Party having lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty after the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ and the Nationalists ‘retreating to Taiwan’ after their defeat by Mao Zedong, where he omits to mention the Taiwanese uprising against Chinese occupation and how Chiang Kai-shek drowned it in blood and imposed martial law. But the strangest error is his statement that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour occurred “at a time when the US thought it knew exactly where the Japanese fleet was, thanks to access to some of Japan’s secret coded messaging”. In fact, the US had broken Japan’s diplomatic cipher, but the Japanese naval codes had been changed before the Imperial fleet set off across the Pacific and the Americans were completely in the dark as to its whereabouts. The best book on this subject is Stephen Budiansky’s Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Code-breaking in World War II (Viking, 2000). But the key points are made in the popular movies Pearl Harbor and Midway. It is a surprising error.
A great deal could be said about Molan’s analysis of the balance of forces and the way China could carry out its putative assault, but two other aspects also demand attention: his analysis of grey-zone activities and his prescriptions for the radical ramping up and closer integration of Australian national security planning. In these two arenas his work overlaps in important respects with that of Alex Joske. Grey-zone activities are operations short of open or declared war which put pressure on a target country. China does a lot of this, especially in its immediate littoral seas. Cyber-sabotage and espionage are part of this grey zone, as are economic coercion and ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’.
Joske focuses, however, on one very specific and long-neglected facet of grey-zone activity: strategic deception and espionage operations, with a specific reference to the closely coordinated and long-term activities of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). Just as Molan seeks to alert us to the consequences for our country if China was to launch the kind of ‘Pearl Harbor’ attack he outlines, Joske draws to our collective attention that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has, for decades, been running deception operations to lull Western political and business leaders and civil societies into the false belief it has only peaceful intentions and is not a revisionist power.
The scope and sophistication of these MSS operations has to be read to be believed. But if one is acquainted with the nature and scope of KGB operations—all the way back to the 1920s and through to the end of the Cold War—Joske’s revelations will come as much less of a surprise. The scope of Soviet influence operations and espionage in the Stalin era is brought out powerfully in Sean McMeekin’s newly published and masterful revisionist history of World War II, Stalin’s War (Penguin, 2022), which reveals the stunning consequences for British and American strategic policy. Joske’s message is that we have the same problem with Xi’s China and it goes way back into the era of ‘reform and opening’ under Deng Xiaoping.
China will not be peaceful, not at all democratic, and not open.
Joske shows extraordinarily patient and deeply resourced efforts have been devoted to courting Western elites and propagating the idea, through the Bo’ao Forum and other international programs, that China’s rise will be peaceful, its territorial claims are just and inalienable and its military build-up wholly justified; the Party wants ‘to build a more open, prosperous, democratic and modernised nation’, and has been the transforming force in China’s modernisation. Clearly, none of this is true.
What the Xi era has made clear, to those paying any attention, is that China will not be peaceful, not at all democratic, and not open. How has the CCP been able to run deception operations for so long and, until recently, with such apparent success? Spies and Lies shows precisely how. The Party and the MSS have long since substituted themselves for any form of civil society or independent intelligentsia in China, while creating the impression that various affiliate or front organisations represent exactly those things. Those organisations, in turn, have beguiled international elites, turning them into what Lenin famously called ‘useful idiots’.
Memorise two names: Yu Enguang and Zheng Bijian. Yu was the master spy who set much of this up. Zheng was the face of the China Reform Forum which, for years, persuaded Western (including Australian)policy elites of China’s peaceful intentions. If readers of Spies and Lies did no more than read Joske’s account of the work of these two figures, it would enlighten them no end as to how insidious and misleading CCP influence operations have been throughout the past 30 to 40 years.
Zheng, a CCP apparatchik since 1949, was handpicked in 1980 to help draft an Orwellian document to paper over Mao’s disastrous rule and sanitise the Party’s legacy. In November 2003, Zheng stood before Hainan’s Bo’ao Forum and set out the ‘peaceful rise’ line. That speech and those two forums were, writes Joske, like cocaine for Western policy elites, ‘like a crystal ball’ regarding the thinking of the secretive CCP.
Through them, the MSS was able to pump the Communist Party’s preferred line into foreign diplomats’ classified cables, foreign think tanks, and Western universities. Read Joske. It is time to wake up.
Paul Monk was head of the China Desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation in the mid-1990s. He is the author of Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005), and is a fellow of the Institute for Law and Strategy (London and New York). His article, ‘It Was China Built The Wall’, appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of the IPA Review.